The view from Mitzrayim (Egypt) was prettier than I had imagined as the sun set and as the ferry leaving from Larkspur Landing passed us on its way to San Francisco. A little over a mile away, the houses on the hill glimmered in the dwindling sunlight, overlooking the stillness of the San Francisco Bay. Exactly four miles away, over the hill where those homes sit, sits one of the most expensive towns in America, Belvedere, where the average home price is $3.5 million and the everyday uniform consists of Lululemon leggings and Free People shirts. In San Quentin State Prison where we stood, the uniform was just as simple: a blue button-up work shirt and unfitted jeans with PRISONER stamped in yellow print on the right leg.
We were given strict instructions as to what we could not do, what we could not wear, what we could not say. No red shirts, no blue shirts, no jeans, no physical contact with the prisoners besides handshakes, and no discussing details of their crimes. We entered what sounded like and felt like a ghost town, a silent courtyard with a single guard meandering through it, his hand resting on his pistol that was very clearly not locked into his holster like us civilians have become accustomed to seeing with law enforcement.
We entered a door that was labeled JEWISH CHAPEL. However, that was a misnomer, as above another door that entered into the same exact room was a sign that read MUSLIM CHAPEL. There were no religious symbols, no books, only a few cloth kippot strewn across a folding table pushed up against a wall. Nevertheless, we were met with smiles and hugs from men who remembered the faces and names and stories of the people who had visited before. Immediately I thought of Balaam, a man sent with predispositions and expectations looking over the Israelites’ tents in awe proclaiming, “How glorious are your tents, your dwelling places, O Jacob!” (Numbers 24:5). The place I saw was barren and empty, but it did not feel that way; electricity filled the air.
Nine other visitors and I sat interspersed between about 15 incarcerated men. They assured us that normally their community was much bigger, but the change in time (we came a half hour later), along with a lockdown that confined most of the inmates to their cells, discouraged a lot of the “regulars” from joining us.
What we began to do was something not terribly unusual for us. We sat in concentric circles and sang, something we have been doing at our congregation for nearly 10 years. After kabbalat Shabbat services and a community dinner, a congregant would open up their home for what we called “Shabbat Unplugged,” an hour to an hour and a half of music with spurts of poetry and Shabblissful silence throughout. My love for Judaism was born in those living rooms; I learned guitar by looking at the hands of the older song-leaders and strummed along. As the years passed, I became the one whose hands were meticulously watched for every chord change, and in recent years have been encouraged to share some of my own music.
The excitement in the room began to rise as Jews and non-Jews, men and women, and people of all races began to join in a song often dubbed “The Tradition” or “Sunday School”: Oseh Shalom to the tune composed by Nurit Hirsch. Soon enough we were singing “Shiru L’Adonai,” a melody from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. This same melody could be heard at Yikar, my favorite Orthodox shul in Jerusalem, as well as in synagogues across America every Friday night and even UCLA Hillel, at both minyanim for kabbalat Shabbat. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I could feel holiness in every note.
As a Jewish song-leader and prayer leader, I sing with a plethora of different groups, but this group was different. I sat down next to a man who asked me if this was my first time there, who smiled at me, welcomed me and said, “There is a whole lot of grace in this place.” As we began to sing, I could hear harmonies pulsing through the room; on several occasions, I confused the voice of the inmate behind me for my own as he sang the same harmonies I had been crafting for years. Next to me sat an inmate who brought his guitar and followed along, watching the other song leaders’ hands like I had for so many years before. During a pause in the music, a man towards the outside of the circle smiled and exclaimed, “I found my voice!”
After we finished, like at any good Jewish event, we mingled. An inmate spoke to the rabbi, describing his hopeful release within the next year after 33 years incarcerated. He said he often thinks about the first thing he will do as a newly free man, and he told us the first thing he wanted to do was go to a synagogue and give thanks. Promptly, our rabbi wrote down his name and exchanged information with the man, telling him rather than asking him that when he got out, his first order of business would be to come to our community, hold the Torah and recite Birkat Ha’Gomel – a prayer thanking God for deliverance, traditionally said after undergoing a perilous experience such crossing an ocean, traversing a desert, or release from prison. Another inmate confessed to one of our congregants, “It has been eight years since the death of my mother, and today I cried for the first time.” I remembered the words of Jacob as he arose from his dream, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).
I was in awe. In awe of my congregation doing this courageous thing of reaching out to people deemed too dangerous and too broken to be worth our time. Of men who had spent more than my entire lifetime behind bars, relegated to dreaming about freedom, but somehow found boundless amounts of optimism and love. We stood in the ultimate, modern day “Mitzrayim”: San Quentin. We gazed out at a Promised Land, a land of freedom from Mitzrayim, and the only thing that separated one from the other was the Red Sea, or in this case the San Francisco Bay. These men, like us, were Children of Israel in every sense of the words, in their struggle and in their perseverance. As we left the prison, saying goodbye to new friends and longing for the next time we could sing again, I recognized that the Red Sea had yet to close. That these Israelites, while behind us in their journey to freedom, were nonetheless destined to stand upon the other shore and sing with us soon as free men.